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Improved therapy for sexually exploited youth

October 11, 2016

A team of child welfare experts from the School of Public Health at Georgia State University and the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy has won a five-year, $2 million federal grant to provide higher quality mental health services to child victims of commercial sex trafficking.

The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, will allow the team of experts to expand their program, known as Project Intersect. The program connects children and adolescents in Georgia who have been sexually exploited with therapy focused on alleviating trauma, and trains therapists working at agencies that encounter and serve child victims.

Project Intersect began four years ago and has so far trained more than 100 therapists. The team is focusing on therapists working in the state's juvenile justice and foster care systems, as well as those working in agencies that serve homeless and runaway youth. The project's leadership includes Dr. Shannon Self-Brown, professor of health promotion and behavior at Georgia State's School of Public Health, and Dr. Kelly Kinnish, clinical director at the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, a private, non-profit agency focused on meeting the needs of sexually and physically abused children.

"Georgia has been a really significant leader in the country for developing infrastructure for youth who have been victims of commercial sex trafficking. However, we can do a better job serving the complex mental health needs of those youth by improving the evidence base and quality of mental health services we offer," said Self-Brown, co-director of Project Intersect. "Additionally, we hope to ensure that state systems and agencies working with these youth are using trauma-informed practices so that youth do not feel blamed or re-victimized in their interactions with these systems."

Self-Brown noted that many young victims of commercial sex trafficking experience symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many also end up in the juvenile justice or foster care systems because they come from unstable homes.

"Often a precursor to trafficking is running away, being disconnected from the family unit," she said. "We want to help these youth recover from their victimization, which can be challenging without a stable living environment. That's why we want to access therapists working directly with the systems to offer comprehensive care and, ultimately, to improve the positive life trajectory for these youth."

Georgia State University

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